South Africa
Jade Hooke for showjumping

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]outh Africa is on the cusp of being internationally competitive – we have had eventers and vaulters represent us in the World Equestrian Games, showjumpers in the World Cup Final, and recently, a dressage rider at the Rio Olympic Games. We seem to be close and yet so far, but what exactly is holding us back? And how feasible, or just plain necessary, is our obsession with climbing that ladder? We speak to some of the movers and shakers in the industry to get the inside track on this aspirational venture.

Local is really lekker

One thing everyone can agree on is that we have the riders, and now more than ever, they are sitting on quality equine athletes. “The quality of the horses has improved dramatically in South Africa in recent years,” says Dominey Alexander, sport horse breeder at Cellehof Stud, top SA showjumper, and himself an international competitor, “not just because we have imported them, but because we are breeding at an increasingly higher standard with constant infusions of top-drawer bloodlines.”

Olympian Tanya Seymour seconds that, and adds, “Our riders are talented. They work hard. True, they need consistent access to top-level coaching, but they are ready for it.” Lexi Stais, who is currently based in Germany and successfully pursuing her showjumping career, is one such example of where talent can go with some exposure and hard work. Lexi says the  constant access to trainers, shows, venues and facilities has been an integral part in her blossoming, even finishing second in her first ever Hamburg Derby recently.

We have the quality. We have the talent. And you need only see the steely glint in our riders’ eyes to know we have the hunger. Where to now?

Cold hard cash

South Africa
A ticket to the Olympic games estimated at a million Euros , if the horse is already in Europe

Overseas, naturally. But there are two big problems with getting our horses there: money, and the quarantine situation. One show overseas can cost some €5,000 to enter, putting the price tag on an Olympic campaign – when considering things like livery, training, care and transport – almost at the €1 million mark, according to Forbes magazine. This is once you already have a horse of that quality, and are based in Europe. So clearly the more cost-effective version would be to stay based in SA (where our riders can still earn a living while competing), and qualify our horses from here. Right? Well …

Because of the endemic African Horse Sickness virus, which the rest of the world really doesn’t want to share, our quarantine to export horses is around five months from start to finish, with a price tag of some US$40,000. This is unfeasible for performance horses: the cost alone is prohibitive, but the time out, the fitness lost and the exclusion from training and competing in that time is a serious spanner in the works.

“What we really need is a revolution in the AHS vaccine,” says Nora-Jean Freeman, head of Public Relations for the Equine Research Centre (ERC) based at Onderstepoort. “Ideally, we need to be able to pump investment into creating a vaccine that will give the world the confidence to waive the current quarantine regulations.” All competitive riders in SA have a small levy on their SAEF registration fees that goes towards this, for example, but part of harnessing true efficiency of the vaccine lies in the responsibility for all owners to vaccinate correctly and timeously, according to the latest ERC published findings.
But that aside, the ERC has also recently released findings on their newest testing technique, the PT PCR test, which would make blood work take a fraction of the current time (some mere four hours), speeding the process along exponentially.

“If we could literally fly our horses out, compete in a few shows, and fly them back home, it would change the entire face of South African equestrian competition,” Dominey says passionately. “The expense is considerably less, sponsors become interested, riders become motivated. It becomes doable.”

Text: Georgina Roberts

The full article appears in the International issue of HQ (August 125) > Shop now